Dec 29 2010
As tankers shuttled between distribution centres and thousands of people in Northern Ireland steeled themselves for another night without drinking water or flushing toilets, some in the 400-strong queue that snaked out of the Avoniel leisure centre in north Belfast were beginning to thirst for more than just water.
“Those at the top of that company should fall on their swords for this,” said John Crossan, who had been without water for almost a week.
“Heads will have to roll for this,” agreed Glyn Roberts from the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association. “Why on earth is Northern Ireland the only part of the UK where there has been this massive disruption since the thaw?”
Up to 40,000 homes were today reported to be without water in Northern Ireland. A sudden thaw after arctic conditions has burst thousands of pipes and let reservoirs run dry.
Doctors are worried about the effect on public health. “This is becoming a really serious emergency,” said Dr John McMahon, a GP who had been without water in his home in Rostrevor for seven days. Peter Maguire, another County Down doctor, was of the same mind. “This really is now a public health emergency,” said the Newry GP. “We need water and we need it for the sake of public health. People with young families have not been able to flush toilets and wash themselves, never mind get access to drinking water.”
What did he make of Northern Ireland Water’s response to the crisis? “Shambolic.”
As the Scottish government offered to provide 160,000 litres of bottled water today, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, said he felt “absolutely let down” by Northern Ireland Water.
Seventeen emergency water stations have now been set up across the north, from Derry in the north-west to Rostrevor in the south-east, but people are still struggling to cope.
Supermarkets and shops have been swamped with customers trying to buy bottled water. A spokesperson for Sainsbury’s said its stores in Forestside in south Belfast, Sprucefield near Lisburn and its west Belfast store had all run out of bottled water.
Geoff McKay, manager of Dunne’s Stores in Belfast’s Park Centre, also said there has been a huge demand for water. “We have one and two litre bottles still in stock, but there is not an awful lot left. Hopefully we will be getting six-packs but I’m not sure when they will be delivered.”
Tesco’s store in Royal Avenue, Belfast’s main shopping street, said it ran out of bottled water on Tuesday afternoon.
Among the casualties of the thaw and the water supply problems that followed was a children’s fun farm in County Tyrone. Barrontop Fun Farm near Donemana said their animal shed, gift shop and toilet had been flooded. The farm had already lost business due to the snow, with 800 cancellations during December.
A spokesperson for Northern Ireland Water said today that all annual leave for its staff had now been cancelled and all employees are at work. The head of the company’s networks said: “We’re putting more water into the distribution systems than we have before, but the situation is worse than I have ever seen it. The vast majority of the leaks seem to be on private property, so we’re urging customers to keep an eye out for leaking taps.”
But the company could not confirm last night if they will have households and businesses reconnected by tomorrow.
“We are hoping to minimise it as far as possible – the term we are using is a few more days,” said the company’s head of customer services, Liam Mulholland.
“We have people on the ground in every area. This has affected the whole province. The scale of the situation is unprecedented,” he added.
Northern Ireland’s environment minister, Edwin Poots, also rounded on the water company. “Everyone knew that whenever the thaw came there was going to be big problems with water, so I think that there was a lack of preparation by Northern Ireland Water, particularly in the issue of communication.”
Poots and fellow ministers in the power-sharing coalition were having crisis talks with the company today.
McGuinness also suggested that customers cut off from their water supplies could be entitled to compensation. “I think there will be a willingness on behalf of the executive to ensure that the most deserving cases are supported financially,” he said.
Belfast city council opened all its leisure centres tonight to distribute water. In all but two, people were also being given the option of using the showers. Some of the centres outside of Belfast, including Coleraine and Ballycastle, were open until 10pm.
In the meantime, people were doing what they could to get by.
One Belfast resident said she had filled a garden container with snow to use for flushing the toilet, adding that the nearest drinking water distribution centre had initially been five miles away. “That’s fine for us, because we have a car, but not everyone does,” she said.
“I’ve bought paper plates to save on washing up and we’re having sandwiches tonight so that we can save the water we would have used for potatoes,” she said. “It’s one of those things: you don’t appreciate it until you don’t have it.”
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